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Michael Dirda defends book review

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When I was growing up, my father – always eager to teach his retarded son – regularly intoned the phrase, “I’ll only pass this way once.” Since Dad wasn’t one to care about anyone outside of our extended family, he never quoted the rest of the old Quaker proverb: “Any goodness I can do or any kindness I can show to every human being; let me do it now. No, he just meant not to put things off imagining that I would come back to them later.

To my surprise, this fatherly advice has somehow become the permanent principle of my professional life as a writer and critic – at least until recently. Over the years, I’ve certainly returned to a handful of writers many times, primarily those monster twins, Evelyn Waugh and Vladimir Nabokov, but in general, I’ve never counted on re-reading anything. I give my best to each book or topic, then move on to something new.

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Yet I often guiltily remember Oscar Wilde pointing out that if a book wasn’t worth reading over and over again, it shouldn’t be read at all. It’s essentially an aesthetic attitude, a connoisseur’s approach – or, more sadly, the fate of a college professor locked in Milton’s teaching for the next 40 years. But since adolescence, I have wanted to experiment with as many books as possible, to familiarize myself with, as Matthew Arnold’s slogan goes, the best that has been thought and said. It’s worth pointing out that, to me, “best” means the best in all genres, not just the traditional classics of world literature.

Lately, however, I’ve begun to question the relentless, never-ending bustle of my life. Each week, I settle into three or four days of frenetically intense reading and research, as I try to feel faintly competent to say something half-interesting about a novel, biography, or scholarly work. The first drafts that I then scribble almost always seem to me – to use an irresistible oxymoron – profoundly superficial, damaging the author, the book, the happy few who constitute my “audience”, and even myself. At that point, I begin to wonder how I got into this business. No doubt some Post readers are also speculating about it. Yet the next morning, I pull myself together and reread my draft literally dozens of times, adding details, sharpening my so-called thoughts, thickening the thin prose, and working hard to make everything sound casual and friendly.

In the end, as my deadline draws near, I drop every Thursday column feeling pathetically gloomy and wishing it was better. Truly, tenacity – my only gift from the gods – can accomplish so much. If only I had been awarded 20 extra points to my IQ! If only I hadn’t tumbled down the basement steps when I was 2 and broke my head – my dad later told me that I had seemed like a pretty smart little kid until -the. Being all too aware of my faults as an author, I never torture myself more by looking at online comments on my essays and reviews.

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Of course, “the indescribable horror of literary life” – to borrow Mr. Earbrass’s phrase from Edward Gorey’s “The Unstrung Harp” – is a familiar theme in the writing world. Yet, to use one of my favorite expressions, I go on, hour after hour, week after week, fumbling with sentences in the hope of improving them. Of course, any professional writer is extremely lucky, even blessed. What we do for a living most people in the world would hardly consider work. My hands and clothes are clean at the end of the day.

At least the evening brings a glass of beer or wine, as well as Jarlsberg cheese and crackers. The start of the day is another matter. Every morning, when I glance at the paper, I whisper to myself: Why bother? Does anyone in these depressing and violent times really care about books? Of course, some people must, and yet today a passion for reading seems vaguely antiquated, while being called “bookish” or “scholarly” borders on insulting, suggesting a somewhat silly, even elitist demagoguery. After all, books emphasize inwardness, encourage empathy, require reflection, and are meant to foster rational argument and dissent. Good luck to those living in a time when screed and accusation have become our staple genres in prose.

Since being hired by The Post, I have aimed to champion experimental and innovative works, genre literature and underrated classics. It’s a tough mix, especially these days. Admittedly, the artists of the past sometimes use a language and manifest attitudes that we rightly deplore today. But as Joe E. Brown observed at the end of “Some Like It Hot,” no one is perfect. We must balance Wagner’s music and his reprehensible anti-Semitism. You can choose never to listen to “Tristan und Isolde”, but you can’t deny its breathtaking beauty and profound influence. What might be Joseph Conrad’s greatest short story has the “N-word” in its title. How much does it matter? Each person should be allowed to make their own decision about this.

Does my tolerant view of laissez-faire imply a dereliction of duty to fight in today’s vicious culture wars? Absolutely. Don’t ask me to start critiquing fiction or non-fiction that touches on the hot topics of the moment. I’m not that much of a journalist. Political tracts, novels on the move, celebrity biographies, self-help guides – these are the ephemera of publishing. They enjoy a fleeting period of buzz and a year later cannot be given up.

As you get older, the memento mori darker aspect of my father’s wise counsel became more and more urgent. Therefore, I now want to revisit books that blew me away when I first reviewed them, be it Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker”, Angela Carter’s “Wise Children”, “The Name of the Rose ” by Umberto Eco or “Possession” by AS Byatt. Yet I also hope to fill some long-standing gaps on my lifelong reading list, starting with Lord Byron’s Letters, Dorothy Dunnett’s swashbuckling “Lymond Chronicles,” and Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene.” And did I mention the essays and rediscoveries I still want to write? Obviously, now is not the time to hang around or slack off. Ahead!

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

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